The policy and advocacy section gives an in depth look at government programs that focus on nutrition.
We live in an environment that has been called “obesogenic” “ one that leads to poor nutrition, unhealthy eating patterns and rising rates of overweight and obesity in adults and children. But while obesity and overweight are on the rise, 50.2 million people went hungry or had unstable access to food in the United States in 2009.1 Low-income people are “paradoxically” among those most at risk for obesity and overweight, because high quality, nutritious food tends to be more expensive and less available in low-income neighborhoods. Eating habits are a personal matter, but as Dr. Margo Wootan, Director of Nutrition Policy at the Center for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI), says, “Eating well and being physically active takes more than just willpower.” The nutritional climate in the United States today has historically been shaped by federal policy, and current policy continues to have an influence on the health of Americans.
Current federal food and farm policy is overwhelmingly biased toward subsidized industrial-scale farms and corporate concentration within the food system, rather than toward family-scale farms and independent businesses. Changes in federal agricultural policy over the past several decades contributed to the flood of inexpensive, nutrient-poor food that is now prevalent in the United States. Michael Pollen, author of Food Rules, states, “when food it is abundant and cheap, people will eat more of it and get fat.”2 In 1972, food prices climbed as a result of both international politics and a Midwestern drought. In response, the government changed federal agricultural policy from a system designed to prevent overproduction into one that encourages it. As a result, prices of basic agricultural commodities “such as corn, wheat, and soybeans” have steadily declined in the last thirty years. Since 1977, Americans average daily intake of calories has jumped by more than ten percent, and scientists date the mid-1970s as the beginning of Americas obesity epidemic.3 The glut of cheap corn and other commodities has transformed Americas nutritional landscape as food companies add value “and profit “ to cheap raw ingredients through processing. Foods from soda to chicken nuggets to packaged snack foods are made possible by these cheap commodities subsidized by the federal government.
Federal policy helped to shape the state of American nutrition; it is time for federal agricultural and food policies that really work for consumers, farmers, markets and the environment. Many organizations including WhyHunger, the Community Food Security Coalition and others are collaborating to develop such policy initiatives as part of their advocacy for a healthy 2012 Farm Bill. The following are a sampling of policy initiatives for improved nutrition.
Programs to assist low-income people to buy more nutritious food have been funded at the federal level since the Supplementatl Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) formerly known as the Food Stamp Program was authorized in 1961. Food Stamps, the Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants and Children (known as WIC) and the Farmers Market Nutrition Programs assist people who otherwise could not reliably afford food at all and those who can only afford cheap, often nutrition-poor food.
SNAP served over 42 million individuals in 2010. Benefits are provided through an Electronic Benefits Transfer card (EBT), which works like a debit card for easy transaction at stores. The program is the largest USDA Food and Nutrition Service nutrition assistance program, but it continues to face challenges of under-funding and lack of political support. SNAP was threatened with cuts of $1.1 billion over ten years in the 2006 federal budget, although advocates successfully fought this. To be most effective and reach more low-income Americans, SNAP should be expanded, not cut. The program and the people it serves would benefit from:
- Outreach. Nearly one third of all eligible people are not receiving food stamp benefits. 4
- Increased accessibility of EBT, including at farmers markets
- Increased monthly allotments of food stamps based on a realistic measure of how much it costs to purchase an adequate amount of healthy food
- Expanded eligibility to reach food insecure individuals and households who do not meet current eligibility requirements of the SNAP.
The Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants and Children (WIC) and the WIC and Seniors Farmers Market Nutrition Programs (FMNPs) are programs that give nutritional advantages to the most vulnerable populations. WIC provides federal grants to states for supplemental foods, health care referrals and nutrition education for low-income pregnant, breast feeding and non-breast feeding postpartum women, and to infants and children at nutritional risk. A 1990 study showed that women who participated in WIC during their pregnancies had lower Medicaid costs for themselves and their babies than women who did not participate. WIC participation was also linked with longer gestation periods, higher birth weights and lower infant mortality. 5
The WIC and Seniors Farmers Market Nutrition Programs, available in most states, provide fresh, nutritious, unprepared, locally grown fruits and vegetables to WIC participants and low-income seniors. Along with its health benefits to at-risk populations, the FMNPs support local farmers, who get reimbursed for program coupons spent at farmers markets, roadside stands and community supported agriculture programs.
Like SNAP, WIC and the FMNPs could be improved and expanded significantly to reach more people. Instead, funding for both WIC and the FMNPs continues to be cut.
Schools have long been involved in nutrition promotion through the school meals program, created in 1946 with the National School Lunch Act. In 2010, the federal School Breakfast Program served 11.3 million children and the School Lunch Program served 31.6 million children every day. Both follow the recommendations of the Federal Dietary Guidelines and must be high in certain vitamins and minerals, but decisions about what foods to serve are made by local school food directors.
The Wellness Policy, for those school districts participating in the National School Lunch Program, focus on nutrition and physical education goals for students. Anyone in the participating schools’ community can become involved in the process. To start, see the Model Wellness Policy Guide developed by the Center for Ecoliteracy with Slow Food USA and the Chez Panisse Foundation. Or visit the Wellness Policy Tool at Action for Healthy Kids.
There are many food policy initiatives being developed and enacted around the country to improve the quality of food available in schools. State, federal or local restrictions on “junk” food and soda in schools and limitations on “pouring rights” deals (giving soda companies exclusive beverage contracts with schools) make it easier for kids to make healthy food choices in school. Policies to encourage farm to cafeteria programs, nutrition education curricula, and school gardens give children an opportunity to learn where their food comes from and why fresh food is important. For an overview of some of these policies, see the Informed Eating newsletter of the Center for Informed Food Choices, the Center for Ecoliteracy and the Farm to Cafeteria section of the Food Security Learning Center.
With nearly two-thirds of American adults classified as obese and national healthcare costs skyrocketing in part due to obesity-related illness, the government has a responsibility to promote the importance of good nutrition. The National “5 A Day for Better Health “nutritional education program” promoting consumption of five to nine fruits or vegetables a day – currently has a budget of $3.6 million, and the Center for Disease Control and Preventions (CDC) division of Nutrition and Physical Activity is funded at $45 million.6 In contrast, the food industry spends $25 billion annually on advertising and promotion “ 70% of which is for “junk food,” including candy, soda and desserts.7 The Mars Corporation spends $68 million annually to promote M&M candies alone.8 While corporations spend billions of dollars to promote junk food, foods that make up a healthy diet do not have a consistent and powerful advocate. The two government agencies responsible for the Dietary Guidelines for Americans and the accompanying My Plate tool have earmarked no money to promote the Guidelines and instead are allowing companies such as McDonalds, General Mills and trade groups like the Grocery Manufacturers of America to create and distribute Guidelines information.
Additionally, the Guidelines themselves are suspect from a nutritional point of view. As Marion Nestle details in her informative book, Food Politics, federal nutrition guidelines are developed with food industry input. Collaboration with industry interests has resulted in weaker nutritional recommendations over the years, leading to public confusion, food fads based on certain parts of the guidelines and repercussions for federally-funded food providers such as school cafeterias.
Given the influence of the food industry’s power of suggestion on Americans waistlines, widespread federal promotion of independently developed nutritional standards would be a great public service. Policy changes could include:
- Increased funding for healthy eating promotion programs, such as 5 A Day.
- Federal food guidelines developed free from industry input.
- Widespread nutrition labeling, including at fast food restaurants, to give consumers real choice about what they consume. 9
- Limitations on food advertising to children.10
All of these policy initiatives to make affordable, nutritious food widely available to everyone are essential, but they cannot be separated from initiatives to address the underlying cause of much hunger and poor nutrition- poverty.
Poverty is increasing in the United States, with 43.6 million people below the poverty line in 2009. Even more people, 50.2 million, were food insecure in 2009, including 17.2 million children. Increasingly, as cutbacks take place in the social safety net, charitable food pantries and soup kitchens are being called upon to feed low-income Americans. In 2009, for the first time, the numbers of Americans using soup kitchens and food pantries exceeded those receiving SNAP benefits 37 million people.
In other words, as cuts, not increases, are being made to programs like SNAP the basic right to food as part of a social safety net is being progressively replaced with the need for charity. The right to adequate nutrition must be situated within the circle of human rights that prevent poverty. Policy initiatives have been launched to fight cutbacks in SNAP, WIC and the FMNPs. Public policies supporting subsidized housing leave more money in people’s pockets for healthy food. Living wage movements and job creation are key initiatives against food insecurity since the working poor, as well as children and senior citizens, are the fastest-growing population at emergency feeding centers.
1 FRAC, Initials. (n.d.). Hunger data. Retrieved from //frac.org/reports-and-resources/hunger-data/
2 Pollan, M. (2009). Food rules: an eater’s manual. London: Penguin Books
3 Food Research and Action Center , “Food Stamp Participation Increased in March 2005“
4 USDA FNS, Initials. (n.d.). About wic. Retrieved from //www.fns.usda.gov/wic/aboutwic/default.htm
5 Why policy. (n.d.). Center for Science in Public Interest, Retrieved from //cspinet.org/nutritionpolicy/nutrition_policy.html
6 Nestle, M. (2002). Food politics: how the food industry influences nutrition and health (california studies in food and culture). Los Angeles: Regents of the University of California.
7 Why policy. (n.d.). Center for Science in Public Interest, Retrieved from //cspinet.org/nutritionpolicy/nutrition_policy.html
8 Policy Options. (n.d.). Center for Science in Public Interest, Retrieved from //cspinet.org/nutritionpolicy/nutrition_policy.html
9 Campaign for commerical-free childhood reclaiming childhood from corporate markets. (n.d.). Retrieved from //www.commercialexploitation.org/
10 Berg, J. (2005). Reporting on the ‘hidden’ issue of domestic hunger. Nieman Watchdog.